Sunday, August 5, 2012

Salvation is Participation

Sermon for the Tenth Sunday after Pentecost
August 5, 2012
by the Rev. John Kirkley

Beginning with last Sunday’s Gospel lesson and continuing through the last Sunday of August, we will be hearing almost all of John chapter six.  Since we celebrated the feast of Saint James last week, we didn’t hear the first section of John six, which is the story of the feeding of a crowd of 5,000 people with just five loaves of bread and two fish, followed by the story of Jesus walking on the water.  The feeding story provides the context for an extended and increasingly complex dialogue between Jesus and the crowd, then between Jesus and the Jewish authorities, and finally between Jesus and the twelve disciples about the true bread that satisfies our deepest hunger. 

You may recall that when Elizabeth preached the Sunday before last, she noted that the lectionary reading from Mark’s Gospel omitted a good chunk of Mark chapter six.  What was omitted was Mark’s version of the miraculous feeding and stroll across the sea of Galilee, so that we could explore John’s version last week.   Let me briefly recap the feeding story we missed, since it gives rise to the theological discussion that follows.

It is interesting to note the differences between Mark and John’s versions of the story.[1]  In Mark, we are told that Jesus had compassion for the crowd because they were like sheep without a shepherd.  They were lost and couldn’t find their way.  So he began to teach them.  When it drew late, his disciples urged him to send the people away so that they could get something to eat.  Jesus responds in the imperative mode, “You give them something to eat.”  They push back, arguing that it would be too expensive to buy bread for 5,000 people. 

Jesus then instructs them to share what they have, which turns out to be a measly five loaves and two fish.  They disciples obey, though I think we can safely infer that they were not happy about it.  Then Jesus took the loaves and fish, blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to the disciples to distribute.  All ate until they were full, and there were still twelve baskets full of leftovers. 

It often is noted that Jesus’ action of taking, blessing, breaking, and sharing the bread is replicated in each celebration of the Holy Eucharist.  We imitate Jesus in our sharing of communion, at least, in an external sense.  But there is another dimension of imitation, an internal participation that is missing in this story.  The disciples go through the motions of imitating Jesus in feeding the crowd, but their hearts are hardened.  They aren’t feeling it.  There action remains at the level of imitation rather than an actual participation in the flow of compassion. 

Later, when Jesus walks on water and calms the storm, we are told that the disciples were amazed – a stock phrase in Mark that ends many miracle stories.  But the miraculous feeding doesn’t amaze them.  Mark underscores this with a second miraculous feeding story later in his narrative, in which Jesus is again moved by compassion and the disciples still resist sharing with the crowd, even though this time they have seven loaves and there are only 4,000 people!  They remain unmoved by pity or awe.   They obey Jesus, but their relationship remains at the level of merely outward imitation.

John’s version of the story is very similar to Mark’s: a crowd of 5,000 people, five loaves and two fish, twelve baskets left over.  But in John’s telling, the gap between imitation and participation, between following orders and being in the flow of compassion, is exacerbated.  The disciples do not even share from their own resources; the loaves and fish belong to a boy in the crowd.  But even more telling in John’s version is the crowd’s response.

Unlike the disciples, the crowd is amazed.  They take Jesus to be a prophet, perhaps even the promised messiah.  They want to force him to become king.  Rather than imitate Jesus in his compassionate response to human need, they wish to harness his power for purposes of political domination.  Their relationship to Jesus, too, is completely external.  They want their situation to change, but they do not wish to be changed themselves.  They want a king, but Jesus has something else on offer.

Cut now to the day after the miraculous feeding, where today’s reading from John picks-up.  The crowd is relentless and follows Jesus to Capernaum.  They try to make small talk, but Jesus cuts to the heart of the matter: “Very truly, I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves.  Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you.  For it is on him that God the Father has set his seal.”

Like the crowd, we come looking for Jesus too.  But what is it we want to find?  The crowd sought Jesus because they were impressed by his capacity to heal the sick and feed the hungry.  I suppose there are a lot worse reasons to follow somebody around.  But they are missing the point.  These are but signs of a far greater possibility for transformation. 

The crowd sees the sign, but miss what is signified by it.   They are like someone who sees a yellow light and accelerates through the intersection.  They saw the sign all right, but missed it’s meaning: slow down!  Sometimes, even when we know what the sign means, we choose to ignore it because to pay attention to it would require us to change, perhaps even to be inconvenienced in the short-term.  We sacrifice the long-term benefit to ourselves and others for the sake of immediate gratification.  

The crowd follows Jesus, but they miss the deeper invitation signified by his work in favor of immediate gratification.  Jesus offers them eternal life – life lived with wide open awareness of and participation in the very life of God – but they just want to feel better and eat some bread; oh, and make Jesus king so that their enemies can get what is coming to them.  They settle for so little when Jesus wants to give them so much more: himself.

The crowd begins to catch on a little bit.  They want to know how to imitate Jesus: “What must we do to perform the works of God?” they ask.  The response that Jesus gives is somewhat curious:  “This is the work of God, that you trust God sent me to you.”  The word “believe” would be better translated here as “trust” – it is an invitation to a relationship with Jesus and not simply assent to a theoretical proposition about Jesus.  What Jesus is asking may seem easy on one level, not really doing anything at all.  But the work of trusting another, of becoming vulnerable to another, is in many ways the most difficult work because to trust another is to open ourselves to being changed by our encounter with them.

The crowd quickly backpedals.  They aren’t interested in what is signified here: intimacy with Jesus such that we share in the very life of God.  They remain stuck at the level of the signs themselves:  “Do another miracle!  That’s what Moses did!”  They want Jesus to prove himself again, as if the signs already performed weren’t enough.  But no one, not even Jesus, can prove herself trustworthy outside the risk of relationship itself. 

The crowd backpedals, but Jesus will not let them go.  He reminds them that all experiences of awe and compassion come from God.  It is God who provides the true bread, which satisfies our deepest longing for eternal life.  The response of the crowd echoes down through the ages and expresses our own profound desire: “Sir, give us this bread always.”  Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever trusts me will never be thirsty.”

“I am the bread of life.”  Here we find the very center of the Christian Gospel:  the claim “that salvation is to be conceived as an ongoing sharing in the life of God, in a deeper and deeper way, where to share in the life of God involves, among other things, sharing in and exercising the virtues of faith, love, and righteousness that are in God.”[2]  The doctrine of the Atonement simply states that Jesus’ life, death and resurrection makes participation in the life of God available to us.  

That doctrine does not specify how Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection accomplish this, though many theories have been proposed to explain it.  John chapter six gives us a clue, however:  trusting Jesus, opening ourselves to being in relationship with him.  This relationship is the door through which we enter into life with God, a deeper and deeper capacity to perceive and respond to reality as held in love. 

As we listen to John chapter six in the coming weeks we will explore this Mystery more deeply.   Following Jesus may be more than we bargained for.   There is something in us that would rather hold Jesus at a distance, keeping the relationship purely external and instrumental.  But Jesus wants to get under our skin.  He wants to feed us with himself, with the very life of God.   

Imitation is not enough.  Salvation is participation.  Nothing less can satisfy our desire for God, or God’s desire for us.  Amen.

[1] Andrew Marr, OSB, “On Being Bread from Heaven,” accessed at
[2] Robin Collins, “The Incarnational Theory of the Atonement,” p. 5, accessed at

No comments: